Issues with Using Typology in New Testament Studies

Typology is defined as the identification of persons or other details within earlier parts of Scripture (the “type”) that partially parallel or resemble details in later parts of Scripture (the “antitype”), thereby giving the earlier events a deeper prophetic meaning within God’s salvation history. With a christological hermeneutic, typology usually involves interpreting narratives from the Hebrew Bible as a prefigurement of Jesus, his ministry, his disciples, or his church.

The two biggest issues surrounding the use of typology is its noncontextual nature and christological trajectory that allows later readers to interpret passages according to their own theological agenda. The difficulty initially appears specifically with the historical-grammatical focus on authorial intent, especially when realizing that the original biblical writers likely did not intend for or anticipate the typology of later exegetes. The issue is whether it is appropriate (hermeneutically) for readers to take biblical passages out of context, artificially constructing historical analogies that are built more around theology than scholastic interpretive practices.

Indeed, typology appears to disregard the hermeneutical maxim: a text can never mean what it never meant.

The other issue is the underlying theological presuppositions inherent in typology. For the New Testament writers and later Christians, it is presumed that their God (in confirmation of Christ as the Son of God) directed all of salvation history in order to generate these parallels between the two Testaments. For nonChristians (and some Christian theologians), the problem is that these historical correspondences are a matter of coincidental happenstance that result in eisegetical readings back into the texts. Because God had not specifically revealed the nature of these types originally, it begins to look arbitrary and self-serving to presume that this was God's original intention.

Two key examples of the use of typology includes Isaiah’s reference to Eden as being a prefigurement of the future eschaton (Isa. 9 & 11) and Hosea’s reference to the wilderness wanderings as a type of Israel’s future covenantal relationship with God. But the Old Testament is replete with other examples where prominent people (e.g. Moses, David), events (the Exodus, Sinai), and nation peoples (Babylon, Jericho) become types for future details in the life of Israel. One key example in the New Testament (which also exhibits the noncontextual nature discussed above) is Matthew 2:15 and its reference to Hosea 11:1.

Here, Matthew typologically interprets ancient Israel’s sonship and deliverance from Egypt as a prophetic foreshadow of Jesus’ flight to Egypt. Another example is John 13 and Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 41 as being fulfilled in Judas’ betrayal. A final example is John 19:36 where the evangelist believes Jesus’ legs were not broken to fulfill the sacrificial requirements of Passover.

There are a couple of theological reasons for why the New Testament writers engaged in typology of the Hebrew Bible. First, they believed that Jesus fulfilled the role of Messiah as prophesied in Scripture and, therefore, looked (retrospectively) back into the Old Testament for textual support of this belief. More importantly, however, is the theological belief that God had superintended all of salvation history and, therefore, purposely inserted different patterns into the past in order to foreshadow future persons and events for soteriological reasons. This was ultimately a theology dependent on God’s immutable nature, believing that God would continue to guide and intervene the course of history in similar ways so that the past (and God’s actions in the past) can become a guide to understanding the future.

The central interpretive principle that guided the New Testament writers was their christological hermeneutic. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ guided their interpretive readings of the Hebrew Bible. It was their conviction that Jesus was the Son of God that forced them to reinterpret passages from the the Old Testament. Likewise, the early church had a pneumatological principle to their typology. In other words, they had a sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit in their interpretations of earlier Scriptures. They believed that because of their special role in salvation history (as witnesses to Christ and inheritors of God’s kingdom), they were in the unique (Spirit-filled) position to see Christ throughout the Bible. This is especially true when recognizing that early church tradition had Jesus explicitly teach the disciples how the Hebrew Bible pointed to him.

The difference between typology and allegory is that typology retrospectively interprets general themes in the Hebrew Bible (such as people, places, and events) as opposed to allegory, which reinterprets minute and incidental details of a narrative as pointing to some mystical (and often arbitrary) symbol or hidden meaning. For example, allegorical hermeneutics routinely attempts to extract deeper spiritual meanings from biblical details, such as from names, numbers, animals, and even body parts. Typology only sees general patterns and repetitive parallels occurring throughout salvation history.

Likewise, typology assumes a literal-historical referent behind the Old Testament texts whereas allegory does not always believe the text is meant to be primarily interpreted as literal and historical. Rather, allegory often presumes the stories are meant to convey deeper theological truths as their primary intention. The basic difference is that while typology treats the surface text of Scripture without assuming hidden spiritual meanings, allegory only recognizes the surface text as a vehicle for transmitting deeper realities.

Also, the doctrinal belief in a duel authorship of Scripture suggests that biblical texts may have multiple layers of significance that transcend the human authors’ original intention. In other words, God could have easily imbedded types into Scripture with the purpose of allowing Christians of every age to mine the depths of God’s special revelation. But this should not give Christians license to arbitrarily and haphazardly identify types anywhere and everywhere they see fit.

Christians today must recognize that typology is not an exegetical method. It is simply a way to identify deeper salvific parallels within God’s salvation history. They should be cautious about investing the frivolous nuances of Scripture with hidden prophecies of future persons, places, and events. Thus, Christians today should not attempt to interpret biblical passages as being an indirect prophetic foreshadow of twenty-first century events (in a typological fashion). The overall goal of typology ought to be to identify how Christ and the first century church heighten the significance of earlier biblical themes and events. This keeps typology thoroughly christocentric while endeavoring to keep a level of coherence between the two Testaments.

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